The thing is, no one is going to come along and tell you what work you will love and enjoy doing. Only you can discover that. So you’ll need to get to know yourself. And to get to know your true self you have to separate out and put aside all the external inputs you have likely been internalizing - all the "shoulds" about who you're supposed to be and how you're supposed to live your life, all the logic-based rational arguments about what are the "good jobs" or best career strategies, all the voices of your parents/family who mean well, but have been guiding you to do things that you know aren't really what you want. You also have to put aside all the internal chatter about what "everyone else" is doing, achieving, accumulating. Put down the comparisons and stop using what other people are doing to inform what you should do with your life. Although it might appear so from the outside, most of the time they don't know any more about how to live a fulfilling life than you do.
In short, to know yourself and in turn, discover work you enjoy, you have to stop looking outward and start looking inward. You need to get quiet and listen deeply to yourself. Perhaps deeper than you've ever listened before. It's a skill to develop as we're not taught to listen to ourselves. Through school and culturally, we're taught to come at everything through our mental faculties and use our smarts and logic to "figure it out." The matter at hand here though, finding what lights you up and brings you joy, is not so linear. Your humanity is more complex and mysterious and needs a different approach. One where you listen less to the chatter of the mind and more to the messages from your heart, body and intuition. To drop all the "shoulds," to define success on your own terms, to move from alignment and what lights you up, is really about you embracing, deeply listening to and being you. When you do that, the life that you want - with positive relationships, financial success, health, fulfillment, joy...you name it - becomes possible.
Here’s a small story from my own life to illustrate...
Six years ago I got really sick. My career and how I was running my life at the time was extremely stressful and my health suffered. Sickness aside, I was at a low point in terms of happiness. I was chasing achievement to prove my worth and doing things because I “should.” And while I didn't know who I was, I knew I was living very much out of alignment with myself because I didn't like what I was doing every day. I had to force and psych myself up to do it. I was living by an externally defined notion of "success" and desperate to achieve those external markers of acceptability at the cost of my health and happiness. It seemed as if my survival depended on it, health and happiness were secondary. I had it all backward.
The illness forced me to stop working, to stop everything and just focus on me. I did a lot of things for my health, but the biggest thing I did was get still and listen to myself. I used this time to for the first time in my life get to know the real me, the one under all that societal and family conditioning that had molded me to be a certain way. At the start, I had no clue who I was. I felt so lost. I had previously built my identity around my career - one of the main reasons why I had held tight to such an unhappy situation for so long - and now that I had taken that away, I felt like I was floating in space with nothing to cling to. I was super scared.
I think this is pretty normal though. In my coaching, I speak to people all the time who don’t know what they want to do, who say they don’t know what they really enjoy or what kind of work would be fun. They don’t know their true selves, just the identity they’ve built for themselves through the years of listening to "shoulds" and the guidance from the mind.
So how did I find my way through and what I wanted to do for work?
To start, I had to connect with what true desire feels like - what it feels like to genuinely want to do something because it feels good. What I learned and what I tell my clients is that you have to learn how to do things because you want to, because it makes you feel good, brings you pleasure, because you have a genuine desire to. We’ve spent a lifetime doing anything but that and instead doing things because we think we should, have to, and tell ourselves it’s the logical thing to do. Instead of moving from pleasure, desire, ease, doing things we want to do with our life and time here on earth, we tend to spend most of our time moving from "shoulds," have-tos, and fear. Doing and moving from pleasure and desire is a skill to develop. Maybe the most valuable one you’ll ever learn.
Don’t believe me or want to see what I mean?
Here’s what I’m suggesting you try. This little experiment is pretty powerful. It will help you see where you are moving from anything other than desire and alignment with your true self. It will show you just how much you might be motivated to do things from thoughts of obligation or fear. And it just might lead you to discover the type of work that you love and fits you perfectly.
Take a few hours (or a whole day, maybe a weekend day or day off) and tell yourself you will only do something if you genuinely feel like doing it. Then observe your mind. When an idea to do something comes in, examine it. Do you really want to do that? Or is it coming from a fear of what will happen if you don’t or a belief about how you should? Challenge yourself to only move and act from real desire.
It’s harder than it sounds. If we’re really disconnected from ourselves the first few times you try it you may find no genuine desires come through at all. We might end up just sitting there doing “nothing.” And stillness, “nothing,” can make many people very uncomfortable. Many of us fill our days with tons of activity to stay busy, distract and avoid meeting our emotions that are right there under the surface. To meet your real self, you’ll have to meet all that stuff too. But it will be worth it to finally acknowledge and explore those feelings. They often contain our truth that can point us toward what we want. And they’ve likely been burdening us for some time. We can only put down what is heavy if we acknowledge it’s there. This is where having a coach or, depending on what’s coming up, a therapist can help.
I did this for weeks at a time while I was sick. It was a challenge. I would end up in bed eating ice-cream and watching reality TV at 2pm on a Tuesday while crying because I hated that I was doing that. My conditioning from my upbringing was all about work, work, work, and that productivity determined ones worth. So finding myself here really freaked me out. It felt unsafe and way out of my comfort zone. I’d call my own coach with tears running down my face feeling so ashamed of how “unproductive” I was. But after years of fear-motivated pushing myself to be productive day-in and day-out, sitting in bed is all I actually wanted to do. I didn’t have any genuine desire to do anything else. And I really wanted to see this through to connect with the real me and create something different in my life. Little did I know how productive I was actually being in the big-picture.
Like I experienced, you may have thoughts that say following your seemingly random desires - a desire to do “nothing” or check out a comedy show or sit in the park (or whatever you find you want) - will in no way help you discover what you want to do for work, but that’s not true. It’s a process and you just have to trust it. Over time, I found I no longer wanted to sit in bed and I got the desire to do something else, and from there something else, and so on. It kind of all unfolds in a way you couldn’t have predicted, because again, we’re not using our mind here, we’re listening to our body, heart and intuition. We’re following our nudges and creating a new path forged by our desires.
For me, one day I listened to a nudge to check out a local bookstore. I randomly picked up a self-help book. I devoured it and immediately googled the author. I saw she has a life-coach training program where I could learn her techniques. Without knowing for sure if I wanted to actually be a coach or not, I signed up. I was just following my curiosity and desire to learn the content of her work more in-depth. There’s a lot more to it, but that was the beginning of what led me to be a career coach today.
And through connecting deeply with myself along my journey, starting with this desire-finding exercise, I was also able to recover my health. When we uncover and listen to our desires, we are also honoring what our body wants and needs. Following what feels good means following what feels good to our body. If we tune into what it’s telling us we can move away from stress and being in a constant state of fight-or-flight to more relaxation, ease and health.
You can try this exercise of listening to your desires in a few hours of your free time, on your weekends, on a week-long vacation, on a 6 month sabbatical. It really can be a very powerful tool to help you find your way. There are a lot of different ways to discover what you want to do, this is just one way to jump in if you're feeling lost and want to try something perhaps a bit non-conventional.
Again, the assignment - only do things because you really want to. Ha. What a world that this is a challenge. But if we want to love our life, if we want to experience ease and joy and flow in our days, if we want to shift away from a life where each day feels like so much effort and work and filled with “shoulds,” toward one where we act from alignment and enjoy what’s on deck each day, it’s no mystery that it will require learning to tune into your genuine wants and desires. This is where it starts.
So, if this sounds interesting to you I’d encourage you to try it out. Your mind may be in resistance to trying, but sometimes we have to put the mind aside and just take a different approach. You could learn about yourself. It could even be fun. You could have a breakthrough. You just never know until you try.